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‘We can’t afford not to support registered nurses with dyslexia’

Rachael Major

As a senior lecturer in nursing for over 15 years I have supported many students, but some leave lasting memories.

Several of these were extremely articulate and had great reports from practice but struggled with the written components of the programme and, in some cases, with organisational skills. On further investigation, many were found to have dyslexia.

Dyslexia is a common specific learning difficulty or difference, affecting 4-10% of the population. It affects spelling and reading, and has wider effects on the speed of processing information, organisational skills and working memory. However, it also brings many benefits such as creativity, empathy and problem-solving skills, which are beneficial in nursing.

The more I learned about dyslexia, the more I wanted to know, so I decided to focus my doctorate on education in this area. Little research has been conducted with registered nurses (RNs) who have dyslexia – most involves student nurses. However, dyslexia doesn’t go away once a nurse qualifies, so I felt this was a gap in the literature that I would try to address. 

“There is still a stigma associated with being a nurse who has dyslexia”

During my research, I interviewed RNs about their experiences of learning, both in classroom settings and in practice, from as early in their lives as they could remember. I also interviewed lecturers who had supported RNs with dyslexia. What I found was that RNs who have dyslexia develop compensatory strategies to mitigate the difficulties they experience. These strategies include developing and using templates or previous examples of documentation to help structure notes or letters, being organised, minimising distractions, and using technology. Extra effort is required for many of these strategies, along with some reasonable adjustments to the working environment in line with the Equality Act. 

There is still a stigma associated with being a nurse who has dyslexia; some people suggest it could be dangerous, especially when it comes to drug administration, despite there being no evidence to support that. In my study, the RNs were very aware of patient safety and extra careful with drug administration or, in one case, avoided it where possible. 

Without a supportive practice environment, nurses may employ less-beneficial strategies, such as avoidance and disguise. However, these are likely to increase stress, which is known to reduce working memory and exacerbate the effects of dyslexia. Managers and colleagues need to understand how dyslexia might affect individual nurses, and support the beneficial compensatory strategies that have been developed. Many of the strategies and adjustments that are helpful for nurses who have dyslexia are also beneficial for all staff. What is really important is having a non-judgemental attitude, so staff feel able to discuss any challenges they are experiencing and how they manage them, without fear or loss of their professional standing.

Student nurses who have dyslexia have little control over where they are placed inpractice, but this is not the case for RNs. Nurses will aim to live and work in a setting that suits their way of working and includes a supportive team that allows them to use their compensatory strategies, or they will leave the profession completely. With the current shortage of RNs, we cannot afford not to offer support – be it financial, legal or moral – to what may be as many as 70,000 nurses on the NMC register who have dyslexia.

Rachael Major is senior lecturer, Institute of Health and Social Care Studies, States of Guernsey

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Readers' comments (2)

  • This really refleshing to hear to that I am valued. I am an RN with dyslexia but have managed to gain a distinction in my MSc. I have encountered many negative attitudes towards dyslexia which have included "your thick", "its just an excuse for being lazy" (when you dont write your notes fast enough), "there is no point in teaching you x, dyslexics aren't allowed to work there". Much of this has been made worse by Michael Gove's announcement when he was education secretary that dyslexia doesn't exist and is an excuse for the lazy.
    Dyslexics like myself work ten times harder to achieve what we do, we often have a strong and committed work ethic and plenty to offer in terms of problem solving etc I have yet to come across a dyslexic nurse who was unsafe due to dyslexia but the negative comments you have to put up with can be very disheartening.

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  • I carry out training for NHS Trusts to raise awareness of dyslexia - at the end of my last training for a large Trust with 4,000 staff ( for whom they were doing nothing for the employees with dyslexia) a nurse came up to me to thank me - she said she worked long hours and had always thought that she was permanently tired because of that not because her brain was working so much harder than her non dyslexic colleagues to keep up. Yet dyslexic people will have such strengths that are often ignored.

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